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Citizen journalists can fill the gaps

By Ryan Thornburg and Fiona Morgan
News & Observer
In this op-ed, UNC journalism professor Ryan Thornburg and I argue that what our community needs more urgently than additional professional journalists are more people who think journalistically. We need more people who cannot just describe what is seen, but who are curious about what we might not be seeing. We need more people who are less interested in what they can make people think and more interested in showing the public how we know what we know. We propose a few concrete actions to strengthen journalistic thinking in the state and lower the barriers to entry for media entrepreneurs.
December 12, 2010

Selected articles from my Independent archive:


I wrote for the Independent for more than six years. There were four staff writers. We all wrote about everything. Topics included, in no particular order: radio payola, environmental racism, voting rights at the mall, the economics of rock clubs, and the crisis facing honeybees. I wrote about local politics, covering municipal elections and state legislation. But the most fun I had was covering media and technology, exploring national policy issues from a distinctly local perspective. Below are a few of those stories.

Chatham’s information highway is made of dirt

An in-depth feature on the problem of rural internet access in Chatham County and places like it. This article won an award for in-depth reporting on state government from Capitolbeat.
February 18, 2009

Mighty, mighty broadband

A profile of the City of Wilson’s municipal fiberoptic broadband service, which was faster and cheaper than Time Warner Cable’s.
June 18, 2008

Photo by Derek Anderson


The Wilson story was one part of many years of coverage I did of telecommunications issues. That coverage began when the state first considered, then passed, a statewide video franchise law that superceded local government agreements with cable TV and Internet providers. I reported on how the bill would impact public access television stations and described how it fit into a national context of telecommunications policy. Once the bill passed, I examined promises by its proponents — namely AT&T — that a state franchise would increase competition, improve service and lower prices. (Not so much.) See more stories about broadband and technology access.

Inside The Herald-Sun

One year after a traumatic takeover by the Paxton Media chain, Durham’s hometown newspaper offers more local content, but less news. Includes a quantitative analysis of how the paper’s coverage changed, and a sidebar on the loss of the paper’s Spanish-language supplement.
January 18, 2006

The Raleigh News & Observer is the the Triangle area’s metro daily newspaper and the second largest paper in the state. Owned by The McClatchy Company since 1995, it has suffered in the same way that other metro papers across the country have, and McClatchy’s debt load hasn’t helped. I wrote more stories about layoffs and editorial changes at The N&O than I care to count, beginning with an explanation of the paper’s somewhat cryptic comments about “changes” in March 2007. By the following spring, it was clear the cuts would run deep. I reported on how editors adapted to a smaller newsroom staff, cutting the entertainment insert, merging some operations with its longtime competitor, The Charlotte Observer, and choosing to focus on investigative reporting. I also covered reactions from employees and from other members of the local media community, particularly in Chapel Hill and Durham, where the once-aggressive local coverage dwindled and satellite newsrooms closed. See more stories about local media.

Ideas don’t have to cost an arm and a leg

Profile of a small, idealistic firm, Tackle Design, and its efforts to develop open-source prosthetics.
December 13, 2006

Photo by York Wilson



An exploration of how copyright law and fair use affects local artists, musicians and documentary filmmakers, and the role Creative Commons, co-founded by Duke Law Professor James Boyle, can play in advancing open-source expression.
December 3, 2003

See more stories about intellectual property

Young voters turned N.C. blue

I spent the better part of Election Night 2008 watching the returns at St. Augustine’s College, an HBCU in Raleigh, an experience that made me reflect on the role young people played in getting out the vote in North Carolina.
November 11, 2008

Local leaders pull no punches about Jesse Helms’ legacy

Writing Jesse Helms’ obituary for a newspaper founded in no small part to oppose his agenda was a high point in my career.

July 9, 2008

I wrote about politics at every level — municipal, county, state and national. I also participated in the Independent Weekly‘s endorsements committee for six years, taking part in our newspaper’s vetting of candidate for every contested seat. I researched local affairs and wrote questionnaires for candidates, the responses to which we posted online to provide as much context as possible for our decisions. See more stories about politics.

More stories about broadband and technology access:

The FCC’s net neutrality rules leave the future of the Internet unclear

An explanation of the rules, why almost nobody’s happy with them, and why they aren’t likely to go unchallenged.
January 5, 2011

Wishful mapping

One of many articles on controversies surrounding Connected Nation’s map of broadband access in North Carolina.
July 15, 2009

Technobarons of the 21st Century

In which I explain net neutrality and why it matters, shortly before Sen. Ted Stevens’ famous “series of tubes” gaffe.
May 17, 2006

This story was picked up by several other alt weeklies across the country. A revised version, TheirSpace appeared in Willamette Week.

Bridging the divide

A special technology issue that explored people and projects in the Triangle addressing the digital divide. Includes a story about Red Hat’s development of software for the One Laptop Per Child project and a profile of Jane Smith Patterson and the e-NC Authority.
February 21, 2007


More stories about local media:

This year’s model

With fewer reporters covering local news, upstarts try to fill the gaps. Four local examples of types of outlets — nonprofit, community print newspapers, ideological media and student media — stepping up to report the news. Accompanied by a consideration of The News & Observer‘s next life and an interview with Dan Gillmor about the role of citizens and readers in the future of journalism.
April 29, 2009

Photo by Derek Anderson


Durham’s hometown daily newspaper, The Herald-Sun, was family-owned for more than a century before being sold to the Paxton Media Chain. I covered the mass firings on the first day of the ownership transition in 2005 and reported details of the sale. One year later, the Independent analyzed how the paper’s coverage had changed (see “Inside The Herald-Sun,” above). We continued to report on changes in the newsroom, declines in circulation, and what it meant for local news coverage.

WUNC’s semantic headache

North Carolina’s major public radio station caused controversy when it nixed the words “reproductive rights” from an underwriting message describing the Chapel Hill-based global NGO Ipas. The station’s stated concern was that the term constituted “advocacy language,” in violation of FCC guidelines, but NPR’s former general counsel had a different opinion.
December 1, 2004

Why can’t you hear Tift Merritt on the radio?

A beloved local musician who was making inroads to the national country music scene wondered out loud at an FCC hearing at Duke Law School why the hometown radio stations wouldn’t play her hit record. This article answers the question by exploring the way commercial radio works.
May 21, 2003


More stories about intellectual property and copyright:

Campus copyright cops

How local universities have grappled with file-sharing lawsuits against their students, and how administrators are preparing for the music and movie industry’s next moves.
March 4, 2009

Battling the copyright monster

An interview with two Duke law professors about their comic book introduction to copyright and the public domain.
Wired News

June 19, 2006


More stories about politics:

A new America, a new Wake County

Coverage of Election Day 2008, with a mix of local and national political analysis.
November 6, 2008

History in the making at Obama’s Raleigh rally

I managed to find a wonderful story by talking to a few of the 25,000 people in the crowd.
October 30, 2008

Western Wake’s House districts could turn blue

Tagging along with a statehouse candidate going door-to-door to reach out to voters was one of my favorite experiences as a reporter. He didn’t win — it was a David and Goliath fight — but he’s still in politics.
September 17, 2008


About voting reform:

Design for Democracy visits Raleigh

Project to redesign voting material finds fans in N.C.
November 8, 2006

Maybe voting at the mall isn’t such a great idea

While reporting this story, I was surprised that I couldn’t find more background on mall voting, given that shopping malls are America’s quasi-public spaces of choice. There’s a dissertation waiting to be written.
October 29, 2008

Q&A with Donald Saari about election math

This mathematician says the most nefarious form of voter disenfranchisement is the very system we use to make our choices: plurality voting. This article sparked some fun, heated, nerdy discussion in the comments.
October 15, 2008


Stories about domestic violence:

After years of domestic violence, a woman and her child fled to Raleigh to start a new lifeā€”one without fear

This in-depth profile of a survivor was difficult to write because of how vulnerable she was. I spent hours in courtrooms in Durham, Wake and Chatham counties to compare notes on how differently they handled these cases.
August 29, 2007

To save his marriage, a domestic abuser gives PEACE a chance

Most stories about domestic violence focus on the victims. I sat in on a batterer intervention program group discussion to try to understand the roots of the problem. One of the men had an interesting story to tell.
September 17, 2008


Stories about GLBT rights and women’s rights:

Photo by Derek Anderson

Angel Collie is a young transgender Christian on a mission of love

One of my favorite profile subjects, who I first wrote about in 2003, early in his transition.
June 27, 2007

Paper mommies and friendly lawsuits

Without marriage equality, gay and lesbian families must create a legal patchwork to protect their children.
July 9, 2004



A full list of my stories for the Independent.
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